Updated: Aug 25
One day, several years ago, I overheard the following conversation between two older ladies who were sitting near me in my Retinal Specialist’s waiting room:
“Do you still drive,” the first one asks.
“Yes,” the other replies.
The first follows up by asking, “Do you have any problems seeing when you do?”
To which the second woman replied, “Things are really blurry, but I am okay as long as I don’t drive too fast.”
What I have observed over the last ten years, is that macular degeneration progresses so slowly that it is easy to miss the magnitude of the vision you have lost, particularly in the early stages. The only time you realize how much your vision has changed is during your regular visits to the ophthalmologist’s office where her testing is designed to uncover the progression of the disease. We are very adept at adjusting to slow changes in our environment, and unfortunately, there is a strong intrinsic desire to hang on to the way things were. No one wants to admit that they can no longer do the simple things in life that we have all taken for granted, such as driving a car.
I remember my doctor asking me during one of my visits, “How did you get to my office today, Chris?”
“I drove,” I answered, trying to hide my feeling of indignance. Does she really think I would get behind the wheel if I thought I was like some of the old people you have in your waiting room?
She replied, “Chris, I know that what is happening to you is difficult, but can you imagine just how much worse your life would be if you killed someone?”
I don’t remember my response, but I am certain it was something like, “Yes, I understand and don’t worry, I would never let that happen.”
I can tell you that I no longer have any sense of what good eyesight looks like. I would venture a guess that the few things I would say I see clearly, most people would judge otherwise, so having someone who has some sense of just how bad my vision is, challenged me, and helped me see the truth. It wasn’t long after that day that I finally hung up my car keys for good. That was nearly four years ago and my vision is so much worse today. I won’t bore you with my all-too-familiar lament about how frustrating it is that it just keeps getting worse. Oops, I guess I just did.
While I haven’t driven a motor vehicle of any type for nearly four years, I have still carried a driver’s license in my wallet as I have every day since January 1975, simply because it had not yet expired. It was my proof of identity and came in handy at airports and bars. Then earlier this year, I broke off the lower left corner of the license. It was a tiny flaw that did not in any way obscure the information on the card, but apparently, it invalidated my card as a source of identification. Who knew?
I went online to order a replacement and found that to do that would require me to prove my visual acuity met the state requirements. To give a sense of the likelihood of that happening, just this weekend, my wife pointed to the side of the road and said, “Look at how big that truck full of Palisade peaches is,” to which I replied, “What truck?” There was no way I was getting a replacement license. That left me with only one option, I needed to get a Colorado Identification Card instead of a replacement driver’s license. To do that required me to formally forfeit my driver's license.
The last ten years have been what feels like a graduate-level course in acceptance. Every time I turn around, it seems, there is yet another “opportunity to practice” my slowly developing skills. Sometimes it’s a meaningful thing such as driving a car. Other times it is as simple as a plastic card in my wallet.
It took me several weeks before I decided to forfeit my license. As a practical matter it changed nothing in my life, yet after nearly half a century, hitting the SUBMIT button and agreeing to forever forfeit my right to drive a motor vehicle was far more difficult than my reality seemed to suggest. It was hard for me to clearly identify the emotion I was feeling. There was frustration, sadness, and finality that seemed greater than the simple administrative act suggested. I imagine it was less about the license itself and more about the cumulative effect of all the things I have given up thus far.
At the same time, when I sat and interrogated my emotions closely, I found an odd sense of empowerment that I struggled to understand. The fact that I made the decision myself was part of that, but somehow it seemed bigger than that. I felt a sort of acceptance that went beyond my visual challenges.
When I lost my job two years ago and ultimately decided to retire, I struggled to accept that change. My career began not long after I got my driver’s license and giving that up was a far more consequential change in my life. Like many people my age, much of my feeling of self-worth came from my career. As I look back on it now, I can see a connection between the end of my career and what was happening with my vision at the time.
Just before I stopped working, my eyesight had reached a point where, to be productive, I needed to take advantage of assistive technologies, such as a screen reader, which would read aloud what was displayed on my monitor. Tools such as that can be very empowering, but in the backdrop of losing a career that spanned more the forty years, I can see how it was also a reminder of my growing disability. It is only now that I am connecting those dots so clearly. No wonder I was resistant to accepting retirement. More than ever, I needed to prove, to myself and everyone else, that I was still as capable as I had always been, but how could I do that without a job?
As I sit and reflect further on my emotions, I begin to understand a little more about the feeling of empowerment that came with the decision to forfeit my license. It feels much like an affirmation, of sorts, that I am okay. In fact, I am more than okay, I believe that I am thriving. Sure, my life has it’s challenges, just like everyone. And yes, maybe some of mine are more than others, but I wouldn’t trade it with anybody. I can hate what is happening with my vision, and trust me, I do, but it does not define me. I know I will not be going back to work. I know I will never drive again. And I know there is still so much I can do to find joy and contentment in my life.
Maybe this is the phase my therapist and I discussed when I first retired—The point when I begin to see my path forward in life (see my March 30. 2022 post In the Goo). The truth is, I still don't know where that path will ultimately lead, but I can feel clearly for the first time that the path I am walking today is the right one for me and that feels great. So yeah, giving up my license was a huge symbolic event with plenty of mixed emotions, but life is full of them and it was a great learning opportunity for me.
As much as I have written here about the importance of living in the present, I think there is sometimes value at taking a quick peak in the rearview mirror to see just how far we have come.